So You Want to Write for a Newspaper by Mark LaFlamme

So, you want to be a freelance writer for a newspaper. You’re nosey as heck and you can write under pressure, but you don’t have a masters degree from Columbia.

Fear not, my meddlesome friend. As far as many are concerned, your natural gifts are plenty for the job. Curiosity and enthusiasm are not things you will get at journalism school, no matter how many tweed coats you wear. I’ve been covering breaking news at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine for twelve years now. I started in 1994 basically because I’d broken up with a girlfriend and found myself broke and stranded in a city that’s not kind to vagabonds. “I uh, I’m interested in doing some freelance work for, uh, your newspaper,” I said to the editor on the phone, when I answered an ad in the paper.

While your approach is likely more polished, the concept is the same. Newspapers love people who will go out and dig for a story when they are called upon. They love writers who can endure the tedium of a flower show and then rev things up when there’s no one else available to cover a house fire across town.

The trick is to write well about both. If you can do that, and you almost never say no to an assignment, you’ll be coveted by city editors above the whiney, self-important reporters who are already on staff.

Some of the best reporters I’ve known had no formal schooling. What they have is the guts of a bulldog and a competitive streak that keeps them a pace ahead of many other journalists who quit when they have just enough to get by.

Former street punks make great reporters, provided they can write. Instincts and street smart out-muscle book learning almost every time. When I started at the Sun Journal, I was paid $50 per freelance article. Often, those articles took only an hour to report and write. I was also invited to cover the police beat for an additional $50 per shift. It typically worked out this way: I would cover the police beat and handle some lame assignment while doing so. In the course of the night, mayhem would flare downtown and I’d end up with two stories on top of the original lame one. So with fifty bucks just for being there, and fifty smackers for each of the three stories, I’d make $200 in a night.

I almost cried when they hired me full-time. I was making a bundle with the freelance pay.

If you write and you have a yearning for the human dramas that come with news, make a call this very day. Call the city or metro editor at the newspaper and tell them you have a burning desire to cover what the other reporters are too lazy and shiftless to handle. You’ll likely get an assignment and, if you do it well, others will follow.

I write novels and columns, blogs and short stories. But nothing compares with the adrenaline blast that comes with filing a breaking news story minutes ahead of deadline. And few things will hone your discipline for other forms of writing like the demanding, rigid world of journalism.

This year, I was named Journalist of the Year by the Maine Press Association. I still get a cherry thrill when big news breaks and I get to cover it. I come home with the energy and thrumming fingers to work on novels. I’m dig my job. And I owe it all to the lovely woman who kicked me to the curb all those years ago. Ain’t love grand?

Mark LaFlamme is an award winning crime reporter and columnist at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine.

His book, The Pink Room and his novelette, Asterisk: Red Sox 2086, are available at or through special order at your favorite online or brick and mortar bookstore.

Don’t miss Mark’s excellent (and funny!) blog at: